Nearly a year and a half ago, I was preparing to graduate from Brainerd High School. I’d been accepted to Middle Tennessee State University, and I knew I wanted to pursue a career in communications, with an emphasis on digital content and social media.
But between graduation and higher education, I found myself in an unexpected spot: a corporate internship at BlueCross.
A leg up from STEP-UP
In spring 2016, Stacy Lightfoot, senior vice president of Chattanooga’s Public Education Foundation, came to Brainerd High and spoke passionately about STEP-UP Chattanooga.
“STEP-UP Chattanooga changes lives in a real and meaningful way by providing students exposure to the workforce and a workplace mentor,” Stacy says. “It also connects companies to young talent and builds a future pipeline of workers. It’s a win-win for businesses and students.”
The program recruits more than 150 young people annually and prepares them for internship opportunities at participating companies, nonprofits and government agencies. The internships are paid and typically require 40 hours a week. Students gain work-readiness training, rewarding job experience and connections with professionals.
Stacy explained to my senior class and selected underclassmen what would be required and how the experience would benefit us. A few weeks later, I joined other interested students for a full eight-hour day of extensive training to:
- build a resume
- prep for interviews
- select proper business attire
- shake hands
- make an elevator pitch
Given my interests, I was hoping to intern at a news station or the Chattanooga Times Free Press. I was surprised when Stacy lined up a series of interviews for me at BlueCross. “Health insurance” and “communications” didn’t immediately connect for me.
However, my interviews at BlueCross – three in total – went great. I spoke with a number of employees on different teams and was most interested in the work of the community relations team.
During our chat, I used all of the skills STEP-UP Chattanooga taught me and expressed my hopes of pursuing a career in communications.
On the clock
I was accepted as an intern in the community relations department and expected a summer of fetching coffee, filing paperwork and focusing on other manual tasks, all while observing professionals in action.
I wasn’t aware I’d get my own desk, my own email, and my own assignments just as if I were a full-time employee.
One project stretched the duration of my internship: developing a strategy and organizing the department’s social media channels to promote its community engagement. My duties involved examining the target audience and looking for opportunities for cross-channel promotion. (And lots of spreadsheets and PowerPoints.)
I had the chance to meet and work with an amazing team. They treated me as one of their own, and I grew to be comfortable at BlueCross. (Bonus, part 1: I was introduced to new restaurants when off-site for lunch. Yes, I am a foodie.)
The amount of compassion and opportunity the community relations team puts forth in its efforts to connect with the community was really inspiring.
Seeing the playgrounds built through KaBOOM! and the volunteer outreach motivated me to change my minor to nonprofit management. I hope to join a nonprofit organization to assist minorities in inner cities.
STEP 2: corporate communications
Freshman year at MTSU was great – thanks in part to my first internship with BlueCross, which taught me a lot about organizing a schedule – but I looked forward to a breather from lectures, exams, and all-nighters writing papers before my sophomore year.
It turned out my summer was booked.
Having made a great impression at BlueCross, I was asked back for another internship.
This time around, I was assigned to the corporate communications department, focusing on social media and public affairs. I was tasked with researching print news outlets throughout Tennessee, as well as assisting with the kick-off of the annual BlueCross/United Way giving campaign.
I sat in on weekly editorial meetings and am fully involved with the team. This summer’s highlights included:
- traveling to the Knoxville office for a photo shoot
- assisting with filming and interviewing students during an on-site coding camp for this very blog
- attending a four-hour strategic communications meeting (Bonus, part 2: Food was involved.)
Hearing the perspectives of fellow STEP-UP interns who are new to the program and BlueCross has been like Deja vu.
“When I got an email from STEP-UP showing that I was going to be interning at BlueCross, not going to lie, I was confused,” says Makalah Smith, internal audit intern. “I thought BlueCross was going to be a bore, and lots of math. But I was wrong. From risk assessment meetings to presentations, I was constantly learning.
“The main thing I took from this experience is to try new things, because you’ll never know how far you’ll go.”
My summer experience in corporate communications taught me a lot about social media marketing and writing for an online audience. I look forward to one day working as a social media marketing specialist, preferably for a company that produces news and stories.
Know your network
I think the most important takeaway from STEP-UP is getting the opportunity to make connections with people who can help build your skill set and potentially help you in the future, and vice versa.
I’ve been fortunate to meet and learn from Roy Vaughn, senior vice president and chief communications officer. He also graduated from Brainerd High and MTSU, so we had an immediate connection. Just last week, I finally took him up on his lunch offer.
I’ve been able to work with like-minded individuals, become part of an inclusive company culture and gain experience that will help me excel in my career.
Best of all? Working at BlueCross for two summers beats any retail job.
STEP-UP Chattanooga is a great way for high school students to be exposed to the corporate workforce and get a head start on their career path. Overall, I’ve felt like a full-time employee for so many weeks, surrounded by people who share my interests. It’s going to be difficult to adjust to the back-to-school grind later this month, but I’m confident that having this dual internship on my resume will open many doors for me.